If someone had said that the Green Bay Packers had Tavon Austin on their roster a few years ago, Packers Twitter would have gone up in flames — and rightfully so. Austin had one of the most electric college football highlight reels of all time. Though he never lived up to the hype he generated at West Virginia, he’s a valuable asset in the punt return game and still has playmaking speed and ability. In his career, he’s returned 188 punts for 1,480 yards and three touchdowns.
Should the Packers consider bringing back Austin eight years into his career? This past season, he only tallied three punt returns for 14 yards, with a long of seven. Green Bay struggled with punt returns all year and brought in Austin in December to relieve Tyler Ervin, who dealt with injuries. Ervin was their punt-returning leader this last season, and he only had 20 total yards on five returns. This is the lowest number of punt return yards the Packers have had leading the team in history. Clearly, there is room for improvement in the return game.
The question is: Does Austin provide enough of a spark to warrant a return to Lambeau? Based on his production, it’s a firm no. Despite limited opportunities, Austin showed nothing that would prove to anyone he should take up a spot on the 53-man roster. He contributed little in the receiving game, totaling only five catches for 20 yards with no drops.
But during his peak years with the Rams, he was used similarly to the way the Carolina Panthers utilized Curtis Samuel in 2020. Austin would line up anywhere on the offense and take handoffs, screens, and even jet sweeps. It was very unpredictable, and it would create mismatches and confusion amongst the defense. Though the Packers didn’t utilize Austin’s versatility, there is no guarantee he would offer the same production. Austin is 29 years old, and his age showed these last four years in the extreme dropoff in his play. From 2013-16, Austin had 2,610 yards from scrimmage, compared to a mere 756 yards from scrimmage from 2017-20.
Perhaps Austin was a player before his time; now, the NFL is looking everywhere for gadget players. Perhaps the Packers never fully utilized his skillset. Regardless, Austin did not show enough promise to validate a return to Green Bay as a punt returner.
Could Austin’s skill-set shine bright enough in the modern NFL? As mentioned, Austin seems like a player who is one generation too late. If Austin were a member of the 2021 draft class, he would be classified as an extremely versatile player — similar to the aforementioned Samuel, Tyreek Hill, and current New Orleans Saints wide receiver/running back Ty Montgomery. Teams would love to use his skill-set all over the field. With the packers utilizing Austin as a receiver for pure depth, it raises the question: Can Austin revitalize his career as a gadget player in Green Bay?
Austin is at his most effective when he is allowed to line up anywhere. Look no further than the 2015 matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the then-St. Louis Rams. Austin was utilized as both a receiver and a running back and showed effectiveness at both positions. He finished the game with three catches for 41 yards and a touchdown, and he tallied four carries for 32 yards and added another touchdown on the ground.
Austin was used as a change-of-pace back for the Rams to contrast then-rookie running back Todd Gurley, and it worked to perfection. The Tampa defense was scrambling to cover him, and they were left clueless as to what Austin would be doing every play. This utilization allowed then-Rams quarterback Case Keenum to have a near-perfect passer rating (158.0) while also opening up Kenny Britt and Jared Cook; they combined for 135 yards and a touchdown on just six receptions. Clearly, when Austin is used correctly, he can make everyone else on the offense more efficient.
This is an incredibly low-risk move for the Packers because he can be had affordably. Though his age may be called into question, you must remember he is 29, not 35. If the Packers were to give Austin a chance to fill this role, the results could be astonishing and further open up Davante Adams and other receivers’ opportunities. Aaron Rodgers has never gotten the opportunity to work with a player like this (the closest comparison would be Randall Cobb). Additionally, Austin could serve as a change-of-pace back to AJ Dillon or Aaron Jones, whoever that may be next year.
Though Austin may not be the solution for the horrific punt returning issues, he may be a cheap option as a gadget player. What do the Packers have to lose? In this modern NFL, Austin’s best days may be ahead of him in Lambeau if Nathaniel Hackett and Matt LaFleur utilize his very particular skill-set correctly.